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Record flight for UAV using Protonex fuel cell system

The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has announced that its Ion Tiger unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) recently flew for 23 h and 17 min, setting an unofficial flight endurance record for a fuel cell powered flight. The Ion Tiger UAV utilizes the latest generation of UAV power systems from Massachusetts-based Protonex Technology.

The 23+ hour duration of the Ion Tiger flight far surpasses the longest previous small UAV flight using any technology. The Protonex Technology power system allowed the Ion Tiger to demonstrate seven times the endurance capability of advanced batteries. The Protonex UAV system used in the Ion Tiger demonstration is a high-performance, ultralight proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell system, which couples stack technology that can achieve 1 kW per kg with advanced balance-of-plant components.

The Protonex fuel cell propulsion system onboard the Ion Tiger has the low noise and thermal signature of a battery-powered UAV, while taking advantage of hydrogen in a PEM fuel cell system. The Protonex 550 W fuel cell onboard the Ion Tiger has about four times the efficiency of a comparable internal combustion engine, and the system provides seven times the energy in the equivalent weight of batteries. The Ion Tiger weighs approximately 37 lb (17 kg), and carries a 4–5 lb (1.8–2.3 kg) payload.

The test flight took place on October 9–10 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Texas. The Ion Tiger fuel cell system development team is led by NRL, and includes Protonex Technology, the University of Hawaii, and HyperComp Engineering. The program is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

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